Sunday, November 16, 2014

Reinventing the Novel: Thoughts on Publishing in the 21st Century

(Updated September 2023)

When the 'Novel' isn't novel any more ...

... where do we turn for the bright ideas that can reinvigorate this fading art form?  The surprising answer: to the very technology that's destroying it.  And no, I'm not talking about AI - just the opposite - the exploitation of real human intelligence--that of the author.

Nor am I talking about eBooks here.  I'm talking a complete revolution in the way we think about publishing.  It's a revolution that has already begun, though the battle lines and alliances are shifting so rapidly that it seems almost impossible to imagine the final outcome.  But that's what I'm here to attempt to do.

Books are quaint old things--nothing but bulky lumps of stained wood fiber that lost their revolutionary status half a millennium ago once the world embraced Guttenberg's movable type.  Yet they live on.  Honestly, sometimes it amazes me that the simple paper book has outlived the vinyl record and the floppy disc as staples in the average person's household.  The latter two are information devices with roughly similar storage density as books but with far better interconnectivity, yet they are museum pieces today.  What's the deal?  Books don't connect with anything but the reader's mind.  To call any book 'novel' in this digital age is, to say the least, a stretch.

The term has become an oxymoron.  The word 'novel' comes from the Latin 'novellus', diminutive of 'novus', meaning 'new'.  A novel is literally 'a little something new'.  My obsolete ten-pound door-stop known as Webster's Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, 1986, defines the noun 'novel' as "an invented prose narrative ..."

Invented ... an invented work of prose narrative.  An author has a 'light bulb moment' and proceeds to turn it into an epic tale, as George R.R. Martin did when the idea of a set of siblings adopting wild dire-wolf pups became his mega-successful 'Game of Thrones' franchise.

Thomas Edison, I think, gets the credit for connecting invention and light bulbs in our cultural vernacular.  And ironically it was another Edison invention--the phonograph--that began the novel's slow decline as an art form.

Before there were books, the "invented prose narrative" was the exclusive purview of the storyteller.  What Johannes Gutenberg did for the written word, Edison did for the spoken.  Suddenly the oral storyteller was back in business.  Cold, impersonal black-and-white print now had an equally distributable competitor with value added: voice inflection, sound effects, even musical accompaniment.

If "video killed the radio star," then radio surely killed the novel, no?  If audio was the first nail in the novel's coffin, then today's cheap, ubiquitous, digital multi-media must certainly have cremated the novel and scattered its ashes to the four winds.

Not exactly.  Here's the case for the defense--exhibit A:  Long before Gutenberg, books had already proven their potential for supplemental content.  Cloistered monks devoted their lives to creating heavily illuminated volumes--visual works of art of highest caliber, complete with multi-color illustrations.

"But," the dour prosecutor raises a pointed finger and remonstrates, "illustrations cannot properly be considered 'narrative', and certainly not 'prose'."

"Sir," the defense calmly responds, "Have you heard of the 'graphic novel'?"

We'll leave the little courtroom dramatization hanging there, with that last parry as a rhetorical question -- 'question as answer'.  Even before the digital revolution, professional critics such as our prosecutor were already forging coffin nails and holding wakes: "The Death of the Novel !!!" they proclaimed. These pundits played at parsing definitions (such as the definition of "narrative"), setting up straw-man criteria for judging what is and is not a novel so they could create a sensational 'headline' and sell an article to a broadsheet.  Even today that practice continues - see this recent high-brow essay by Will Self.

I'll tell you what I think of people who parse definitions for a living.  For one thing, they're not novelists.  They do the opposite of inventing prose, they eviscerate it.  In addition to the light bulb and the phonograph, the 19th century saw the invention of the term 'scientist' (in 1834), whereupon the art of parsing all aspects of reality went rampant and even acquired its own name: reductionism.

This was the dawn of the 'age of the expert' - an apparently short lived era in which a 'credential' in a narrow field of specialty was required to express a worthy opinion, and during which the generalist/naturalist (the Renaissance man) lost favor.  I argue that we have, thankfully for the field of the "invented prose narrative", entered the 'post-expert era': a term I first heard used by Amy Luers just this year (June 2014).

Screen shot from, showing the relative frequency of use of the word 'Expert' over time.

Cheap, ubiquitous, real-time digital multi-media has democratized public discourse.  The emergence of sophisticated AI tools such as ChatGPT have made textual information nearly worthless as a stand-alone product.  The expert's perspective is drowned and marginalized beneath the din.  And the same chaos threatens the extinction of the novel by engulfing it in creative alternatives.

That is, unless the Novel can become novel once again.  Unless the "invented prose narrative" can be re-invented.

The medieval monks cloistered in their cells with pen and parchment pointed the way to comic books and graphic novels.  Journeyman actors and actresses take night work recording audio-books.  High-profile screen-writers/directors turn novels into blockbuster movies and television series.  Cross-pollination is good.

So here is my idealized seven-part 21st-century publishing plan for my epic fantasy/sci-fi novel 'Eden's Womb':

1. Small installments.  Instead of starting by doing any sort of static 'publishing' of a 'book', the author releases the novel a chapter at a time and adds value from there.

2. Free.  The reader can partake of valuable content completely free.  Readers will not even be distracted by advertisements on the page.  Purely free, no strings.  This is part of a 'loss-leader' or 'market seeding' strategy applied in an unprecedented direction.  See item 5 below.

3. Multi-media.  The blog posts will include not only text but illustrations, videos, links to external content, to an index and to appendix and glossary pages.  Among the videos could be the author reading from the manuscript and/or offering commentary.

4. Interactive.  Each installment will be dynamic--changing to add new content.  Fans can contribute artwork, videos and written commentary, including questions, critiques, and suggestions for improvement.  There will be contests and giveaways and other promotions.  Courses could be created and taught, covering topics from world building to individual characters to plot analysis.  The author goes on speaking tours, appearing live at book signings, gets on podcasts, approaches media providers of all kinds about interviews.  Here is where the human element will always out-compete the growing competition from AI.

5. Subscription based:  As demand develops, further installments or advance views may be made available first through subscription on a 'members only' section of the web site.  Note that major software publishing has converted from packaged CDs to monthly subscription.  

6. Branded.  'Eden's Womb' will not just be the title of a novel.  It will be a brand.  The paperback book will be one of a suite of products, and not the first one.  As/when demand develops, other merchandise will be produced--t-shirts, decals, action figures, etc. etc.  Sale of the rights to a movie producer is, of course, a significant part of this.

7. Entrepreneurial.  A successful novel becomes an ongoing enterprise.  But if less successful, the modest start-up (a domain name and web site, social media presence, etc.) need not cost the author a penny.

Now, here's the reality check.  The above seven steps comprise an occupation, a business, a 'brand name'.  It involves a lot of hard work and a lot of common sense that goes far beyond skills at writing prose.  Typically, start-up businesses like this fail 80% of the time.  There are plenty of entrepreneurs out there eager to 'help' you market and promote your work for a fee, or to help you to learn to do so yourself through courses and coaching.  The opportunities to throw money at the problem are boundless and any you use need to be carefully evaluated beforehand.

So ... why has the print book remained a (barely, and admittedly fading) commercially viable commodity while the vinyl disc has dwindled?  Why do we remain so enamored with the old-fashioned printed word--so nostalgically loyal to a half-millennium-old technology?  My short answer is that there's something very fundamental about symbolic expression that defines us as civilized humans.  Symbols have 'magic' - a real-world sort of magic that is emergent, entirely different from the impact of spoken words, and shrouded in the mystery of human consciousness.

Will the magic last?  Will the print book survive to see the 22nd century?  With the seven-part strategy that I've outlined above, an author can hedge bets while still embracing the newest developments.  Novel becomes hyper-novel.  Seems like a fun idea to play with.  It's an experiment--an epic adventure in its own right.  And I welcome you to come along for the ride.

1 comment:

  1. Are you reading APE, Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur?
    It's all about Indie publishing. The authors say that only 10% of all books are published as ebooks, only.

    Danny Bernstein